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Introducing Auden Schendler — Part I: Those quotes in Businessweek’s “Little Green Lies”

Climate Progress is happy to introduce Auden Schendler as a guest blogger. Auden is Executive Director for Community and Environmental Responsibility at Aspen Skiing Company. Named a “Climate Crusader” in TIME magazine’s 2006 special issue on climate change, Auden once worked for Amory Lovins at Rocky Mountain Institute (as I did). You can read his full bio here. Auden has unique insight into the difficulties of corporate sustainability in the absence of government leadership and a price for carbon. Welcome, Auden!

Recently, Businessweek covered Aspen Skiing Company’s work on emissions reduction as part of an article titled “Little Green Lies.” The article has received considerable coverage in the blogosphere because it addresses the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to business claims on the environment.

Joe asked me if I’d like to clarify that story, and I jumped at the opportunity.

My main point, which probably didn’t get across in the article, is that even at a remarkably progressive company like Aspen Skiing Company, which has strong support from ownership, management, and staff, cutting CO2 emissions is very difficult. Imagine how hard it must be in most standard businesses that don’t have this level of buy-in! This statement may seem obvious, but it cuts against conventional wisdom. Most entities involved in emissions reduction have a stake in saying it’s profitable, relatively easy, and sometimes fun. The NGO community makes its living on this perspective. The government needs its own programs to look good. And corporations have a stake in their perceived success as well.

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But it doesn’t help the business community to hear a pollyanish message. In fact, it’s damaging. When you’re told “this will be a no brainer,” and it isn’t, you’re more discouraged than before. The sell should instead be “reducing carbon emissions can be arduous, expensive, and difficult, but we have to do it. And in the long run, it’s going to be good for your business.”

The reason cutting emissions is difficult is that there are multiple and conflicting barriers to implementing these reductions that you can’t see coming. For example: if you have limited capital to invest in a given year, and you have to replace a leaky roof, a ski lift that might fail, and carpet that’s worn out, these projects may trump, and then delay, emissions reduction projects. That doesn’t mean your company is bad or unmotivated around green issues; it means you’re in a business trying to stay in business. The BW article quotes my friends Eric Calderon and Don Schuster, both of whom have voiced some of the real world barriers to change. Eric, one of the better 5-star hoteliers in the country, has pointed out that many high-end guests simply won’t tolerate fluorescent lighting. Equally bad, such lighting might even jeopardize a hotel’s 5 star rating. (AAA says it won’t, but can you blame Eric? WHAT IF the ambiance affects the inspector? Losing a five star rating is the apocalypse to a hotel manager. Spending a bit more on energy is not.)

Eric is a not an ogre for pointing that out — he’s a smart businessman. (Eric, by the way, now works at Auberge Resorts in CA, and has commissioned energy audits for all his properties.) Don Schuster, who has done more progressive green building than anyone at Aspen Skiing Company, including buildings that beat energy code by 50% using ground-source heat pumps, rightly points out that new technology may or may not offer the promise its package claims. He’s taken some hits when our ground source system had operational problem. But he stands by it. He’s a green manager trying to run a business where every capital expense means something else gets put off for another year.

What’s the upshot of this reality? When businesses cut emissions, they hit the high-ROI projects first, get a lot of (well deserved) credit for it, and then don’t ever drill down to achieve the next 70% of reduction necessary to solve the climate problem. That’s the root of my frustration: I don’t think business can solve climate change without significant help from the government, probably in the form of a price on carbon that reflects its true cost. Let’s be honest about that.

In my next blog, I’ll talk about RECs: there are good RECs, and bad ones. The difference matters. And in the last in this series, I’ll talk about what Aspen Skiing Company is going to do next on the climate front.

— Auden S.